Animals, Australia, Urban Walking
Comments 4

Keep Watching the Skies!

If you’re reading this in eastern Australia, you’ll probably know what I’m talking about.

You’re walking — or cycling — through the suburbs, minding your own business, enjoying another one of those endless early spring mornings, the sun soothing and not yet at the furnace-like intensity it will reach within a month or so…

Suddenly you’re torn from your revery by a jolting series of avian warning shrieks. Too late, you fold yourself inward as a feathery thump hits the back or side of your head. If you’re lucky, the culprit will withdraw to a nearby tree to admonish you in strident tones till you’re off its turf. But you know that even turning your back for the next hundred metres or so is fraught with peril…

It is the Time of the Magpie.

If you’re really unlucky, as I was a couple of weeks ago, that fearsome beak will penetrate your defences and strike skin. This one got me above my right ear on its second swoop.

It’s hard to get good video because they like to strike from behind, and the fear — the anger — that floods through you in those seconds renders dispassionate film-making out of the question. My first impulse, after the shock, is usually rage: some bastard has hit me in the head with something! Then a mad but thankfully brief lust for revenge that quickly subsides before you or the bird can come to any more harm:

September is a weird time in suburban Australia for people who spend a bit of time outdoors. Magpie attacks (it’s the males during nesting season, and only a small minority of them) enthral the media, are discussed over coffee. Known hot-spots are shared; battle plans compared.

Here are a few typical scenes from a spring stroll to the shops or through the local park in outer Brisbane:

And here’s the culprit, Cracticus tibicen, the Australian magpie, probably the most common and (September excluded) loved Australian bird you can encounter on the east coast:

Aviceda, Wikipedia Commons

Wikipedia says it shares a broad corvid lineage with its European namesake — early settlers liked to name wildlife and places after those they were familiar with back home. The birds are assertive at the best of times…

JJ Harrison, Wikipedia Commons

..but for 11 months of the year are welcome additions to the Australian landscape. They are wickedly smart, mate for life, are easily coaxed to accept food from the hand, and their gorgeous, trilling warble is a definitive Australian sound, surely one of the most delightful birdsongs anywhere.

They used to make life hell for the postman here every September. It’s a dead-end street, and the resident delinquent magpie would take up a recon position on a telephone pole with a commanding view of the entire approach. I could imagine them drawing straws at the local P.O. before each shift.

You could see the lucky winner scanning the skies as he neared the letterbox on his motorbike, while up on the pole daddy was craning his neck, every feather seeming to bristle. Then the postman would shove any mail in the box, hit the gas and fly up the street, helmeted head tucked in tight, the bird swooping and screeching triumphantly till the interloper was evicted.

It was a splendid show. Trouble was, I’d face the same threat when I ventured out on my bike.

Lately, though, I’ve had to deal with a new threat. This spring I’ve twice been buzzed by another charismatic and iconic bird, the magpie’s smaller cousin, the grey butcherbird. Doing this 1,000-miles-by-Christmas thing, I’ve been covering new territory on my daily walks. Recently, exploring a ridge in bayside Brighton, I was strafed by a belligerent resident of this tree, with the female watching, presumably impressed, next to their nest. This is the male:

Here’s a much better shot stolen off Wikipedia. See the hooked beak? This sweet little chap will even eat other birds:

Tatiana Gerus, Wikipedia Commons

Like the magpie, the song of the butcherbird, bright, piercing and melodic, with an endless array of variations, is another joy of the Australian suburbs — for most of the year, anyway.

A week later I was harassed and repeatedly swooped by this Shorncliffe resident. He tormented me with alacrity for several hundred metres, telling me off the whole way and seeing me to his front gate with a farewell blow to the temple :

Sometimes these suburbs seem like the Amazonian jungle. I do take a perverse delight in describing each encounter to my South American students — you’d think they’d be used to dangerous fauna, but after coming to terms with residing in a land of killer snakes, crocodiles, sharks, spiders, octopi, jellyfish et al, they are introduced to the notion of attacking birds.

And you do have to be careful. Every year there’s at least one serious eye injury (the birds aim for the face); a child fleeing an attack was killed by a car, and another victim faces blindness after a recent attack. Every year the lynch-mob mentality re-emerges with calls to shoot offending birds; talkback radio and tabloid journalism have a great time. One expert recently suggest clipping offenders’ wings.

These signs appear in my local park (where I’ve never been swooped) every spring:

You might expect the park to be deserted but there are still families here every day. I think most of us accept that a bit of Hitchcockian suspense goes with the territory, and only lasts a few weeks. And swooping season’s almost over for another year.

For those of a more nervous disposition, there’s another alternative:

But perhaps that’s too high a price to pay.

~ And that’s all the Goat wrote

Next post: Back to the bunkers on Moreton



  1. Very funny. I like how that sign advises cyclists to ‘dismount and walk’. What? To make you an even juicier target?! When I’m on the bike, maximum speed is the go as I found walking casually to be totally useless! I was riding a few years ago and I could hear the swooping above my head. I was thinking, “Hah! Sucker! I’m wearing a helmet!!” Then I felt a clip behind my ear which also drew blood. Good flying skills to latch onto my moving ear…

  2. Found my way here from your most recent post. We have magpies too, and far too many of them in my opinion (I photographed 4 and 20 in a tree last spring) – they belong in a pie. ;). Unlike yours, ours do not mitigate their nasty bullying habits with a lovely song. No, their cackle is about as attractive as that of our grey heron. Ugh. They do not attack humans though.

    • Yeah, the Korean variety seem pretty tame as well, a bit shy. Their nests are a highly visible part of the landscape though: big assemblages of twigs in just about every large tree you see, even in parks and urban areas.

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